“When Rabbit said, `Honey or condensed milk with your bread?' he was so excited that he said, `Both,' and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, `But don't bother about the bread, please.'”
– A.A. Milne
One small family, morning edging its way over the horizon, peeking through the trees. Lush green surrounded the old stone farmhouse. No luxury holiday getaway, no elegant inn. Rather an old family-owned farm nestled in the Tuscan countryside. The mournful lowing of the cows broke the silence as we made our way through the damp grass and the heavy mist towards the open kitchen door, following the warm glow of the lights within. We were invited to join the family, the stout cheerful mamma and her two burly grown sons, around the long farm table with its flowered plastic oilcloth spread. We scooted old wooden chairs up to the table, the scent of cows mingling with the fragrance of fresh bread warm from the oven. Crockery clattered, coffee perked, the sounds of contented eating and vibrant Italian filled the room, pouring over me like warm milk into upturned hands.
And then a bowl of steaming milk was placed in front of each of us. “Fresh from the cow this morning,” la mamma proudly exclaimed. Carried in from the barn in a bucket and boiled in a saucepan on the stove, the comforting fragrance of the milk rose on soft curls of steam, the scent unlocking memories of childhood and creamy bowls of milky oatmeal on a Sunday morning. Hands wrapped around the bowl to ward off the autumn chill, I dip my head towards the white liquid, close my eyes and breathe.
The simple dignity of a child drinking a bowl of milk embodies the fascination of an ancient rite.
– Carl Sandburg
Our first taste, first nourishment, first sensation.
Milk. Ice cold milk in our favorite glass with the cartoon characters jiggling around in circles, tiny, plump fingers clutching the tumbler, wet and slippery; ice cold milk with cookies and cake, the perfect partner. Older now, that same perfect pairing calls, sending out waves of innocence and nostalgia. A peanut butter sandwich is just not lunch without a glass of milk, balanced on knees while sitting wedged in the branches of a tree. A glass of milk washing away tears, liquid white dribbling down from the corners of lips, arm brushed across the mouth in a gesture of wonton carelessness.
Handfuls of snow.
Milk warm and consoling, a craving born of something innate, something both animal and sensual. The white, white purity of milk, the softness of silk, white sheets shimmering down bare arms. Riz au lait, memories of a French childhood of thick, heavy pudding, rice long-simmered in milk, sweetened and splashed with vanilla. A special treat, oh-so ordinary, spooned up and fed to the little ones like medicine, to plump and protect.
JAMIE'S RIZ AU LAIT
200 g/7 oz uncooked rice for risotto or pudding
750 ml/3 ¼ cups whole milk or half low-fat milk + half light or heavy cream
100 – 120 g/7 – 8 Tbs sugar or to taste
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
15 g/1 Tbs unsalted butter
Place the rice in a fine-holed sieve or chinois and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.
Place the rinsed rice in a saucepan and cover with water; bring the water to a boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes. Drain the rice.
Return the drained rice to a medium-sized saucepan with the whole milk (or half low-fat milk and half cream), 1 tablespoon of the sugar and a pinch of salt. Using a small, sharp knife split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out the seeds. Add both the seeds and the pod to the other ingredients in the saucepan. Bring it just up to the boil and then immediately turn the heat down to very low and, placing a cover atop the saucepan but leaving it ajar, allow the pudding to simmer, stirring often, for 30 to 35 minutes or until the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. The rice should be very soft almost melting in the mouth; it should not be al dente. The pudding should be creamy, neither runny nor dry.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove and discard the vanilla bean pod. Stir in the tablespoon of butter and about half of the remaining sugar. Taste and add as much of the remaining sugar until desired sweetness. Spoon into individual serving dishes, glasses or bowls and serve.
ILVA'S RICOTTA CAKE
235 g/8 1/4 oz sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
125 g/4 3/8 oz ricotta
75 g/2 5/8 oz butter, salted
230 g/8 1/8 oz flour
1 tsp baking powder
Whisk eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl until fluffy. Add the vanilla extract. Pass the ricotta through a sieve in order to avoid clumps in the batter, add it to the eggs and sugar and whisk until the batter is smooth.
Melt the butter and add it to the batter, stirring until smooth. Sift flour and baking powder into the bowl, mix well.
Pour batter into a greased Bundt pan and bake in a pre-heated oven (175°C/350°F) for 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out dry.